If over fifty: Are you sensitive about your age? Do you react aggressively when someone makes references to how old you are? Do you feel wounded if you are alluded to as no longer young? Are you irked if someone mistakes your wife for your daughter? Relax. You are not alone. Great people, benchmark intellectuals, suffer from this “malady” also.
We commoners believe that great intellectuals are beyond the foibles of being affected by physical appearance, age, and looks. We believe that they have more and better goals to engage their minds than to react to negative remarks about their physical selves, usually expressed by little people. We think that such trivialities are not in their mindset, which dwells only in higher and original thinking. Not so. One example will suffice.
I am not qualified to judge Dr. Sigmund Freud’s standing today in Psychology, and whether his ideas have withstood the test of time. Regardless, few will challenge his stature as a thinker and his influence in the world of European thought, and as a precursor of sexual liberation, making him one of the most important intellectual figures in the XX century, along with Santiago Ramón y Cajal.
A man of convictions and profound learning who could meditate and write on diverse subjects and afford light into them, became a giant in the history of world ideas. Yes: I am an admirer of Sigmund Freud the man, the intellectual, the writer, the philosopher and I have read Dr. Ernest Jones’ biography of him several times. I may not commune or agree with all his propositions, but the man fascinates me.
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It is well known that he was not fond of Americans and several theories and interpretations have been put forward to explain his animosity towards the United States. I have my own interpretation.
While on his visit to the United States, in 1909, where he had been granted an honorary degree by Clark University he was toured around. Freud was 53 at the time, in his prime, both intellectually and physically. His theories had been accepted academically in the New World and he was happy and satisfied.
Unfortunately he was taken to Niagara Falls as one more tourist. And here occurred the unfortunate episode that probably changed his attitude towards the US. Dr. Jones explains the Niagara Falls episode thus in his The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud: “… Niagara Falls, which Freud found even grander and larger than he had expected. But in the Cave of the Winds he had his feelings hurt by the guide’s pushing the other visitors back and calling out: ‘Let the old fellow go first!’ He was always sensitive to such allusions to his age. After all he was only fifty-three.”
At fifty three he was referred to as “old fellow” by a tourist guide. He was hurt.
But that was not enough. Freud tells us himself about how deeply negative references to his age hurt him. Dr. Putnam, an American professor, had published a favorable article about the Viennese founder of psychoanalysis and his work, and in the course of his description he made the hapless remark that Freud “was no longer a young man.” In a letter to Dr. Jones, Freud wrote: “As for myself the phrase in Putnam’s essay, ‘He is no longer a young man,’ wounded me more than all the rest please me.” (my emphasis).
References to his age wounded and hurt the great intellectual. Was he vain? I think he was just a person, another human being who saw age as a menace, as a threat and, obviously, he wanted to be young. Thus I interpret his attitude towards the US.
Freud was even vindictive. Dr. Jones tells us: “He took a slight revenge when he translated a paper of Putnam’s … shortly afterwards by saying in a footnote that Putnam was far beyond the years of youth.” Tit for tat: a small retaliation in kind.
So, there. If you are sensitive about your age, you may take the small comfort that you are not alone and that this “malady” afflicts even great people, the leaders, not only the rank and file.
(N.B. I have put this together as a small consolation, and in retaliation towards a security guard who recently referred to me as “old man,” at a museum. I am also very much sensitive.)